By Maria Alexandria Beech
As a friend lamented that the right-wing media and think tanks hadn’t covered the Venezuelan crisis as thoroughly as the “liberal” media, it dawned on me that while The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, NPR, PBS, and others had covered the conflict days after it began, the Wall Street Journal, Fox News, and others had fallen asleep at the wheel, becoming irrelevant in the process.
“Why did the conservative media cover the 2004 crisis so well whereas they are nowhere to be found this time,” he asked. “I mean, nothing. The National Review, Reason, Cato.”
Replacing the role of the media on the right was Senator Marco Rubio on the senate floor. The rather lazily-delivered speech was accessible on YouTube, and many shared it. The speech drew exhausted parallels between Venezuela and Cuba, and expounded upon the evils of the Castro brothers. Rubio also held a press conference with Florida’s Republican governor Rick Scott at a Venezuelan restaurant where Marco delivered the same message. In one fell swoop, Rubio campaigned for votes from Cubans and Venezuelans, for the senate and an inevitable future presidential run. No one took notice.
While the reason that conservatives dropped the ball may be as simple as “the Wall Street Journal reporter was away,” much has changed in the way that information is collected, filtered and delivered. For one, social media has transformed access to the mainstream media. Whereas in 2004, only the highest spheres of power had access to the publishers of the New York Times, Washington Post, and others, today the middle class can write a reporter directly on twitter and other social media. They can also share the story on their Facebook accounts where a reporter may access it. Even with strict censorship, events iare no longer filtered through intermediaries who are often elites.
With a burgeoning Venezuelan diaspora abroad which is educated and media savvy, events are now reported on different platforms. Photographs, videos, and articles are posted on Facebook and Twitter, re-posted, messages from emails, text, and whatsapp are sent and forwarded. The ready sharing and access to information shapes the story, broadening its characters and with them, its stakes.
In 2004, the story was abstract. Venezuelans were at the mercy of how Juan Forero at The New York Times told it. Industry leaders panicked and implored their friends at The Wall Street Journal and Fox News for help. Ten years later, industry leaders have made their peace with the government. Yes, the government is repressive. Yes, there's panic. But is it a story for the Wall Street Journal?
In 2014, the human rights angle of story feels urgent. Real humans are posting the videos of repression.
When a story becomes real, when the critical mass of a country screams that it’s real, that’s when the so-called "liberal" media jumps in. As people started to die at protests, this wasn’t a story hatched in a think tank or a state department lab. Ordinary people were crying for help.
The challenge was determining what was true. Whereas for years journalists had falsely portrayed the ongoing Venezuelan crisis as a conflict between the rich and the poor, in 2014 it was evident that the opposition had swollen to at least 50%. Those begging the media for coverage weren’t fancy Venezuelans at a cocktail party. They were waiters, store clerks, anyone with a computer.
In its recent articles, The New York Times and Guardian pursued differing perspectives, exploring where class issues fit in. On February 20th, The Guardian was the first to plunge in with “Venezuela's poor join protests as turmoil grips Chávez's revolution,”reporting: “The poor neighbourhood of Petare in western Caracas is not an obvious hotbed of anti-government sentiment. In the past, its residents have been among the major beneficiaries of Venezuela's public health and education campaigns, and an economic policy that resulted in one of the sharpest falls in inequality in the world. But as demonstrations sweep several major cities, even the people of Petare have taken to the streets to protest again surging inflation, alarming murder rates and shortages of essential commodities.” TheStar reported that “the results of the poll powerfully suggest that forces considerably more nuanced than rich-versus-poor are contributing to the tensions here, although elements of class conflict are undoubtedly at work.”
To understand the 2014 Venezuelan crisis, the media had to shift its gaze away from class struggles and towards sky-rocketing inflation, a high crime rate, and food scarcities, factors that directed impacted the poor. During a recent CNN en Espanol intervew, student Yeiker Guerra, who lives in one of the poorest barrios in Caracas said, “of course the poor are joining the marches...we’re losing our fear of the colectivos and going to the protests.”
On March 1st, The New York Times rolled back down the hill with an article which once again attributes the crisis to class. In "Slum Dwellers in Caracas Ask, What Protests?", William Neumann falls short on important reasons why some of the poor in Caracas haven't joined the opposition protests, and also ignores evidence that many have.
Father Alejandro Moreno, a Salesian academic who for years has lived in a barrio on the west side of Cacaras, has become iconic for his studies on the lives of the poor. In a recent interview in El Universal, he said: Today we have information, according to several studies, that the poor are becoming organized….Moreover, it is telling that nowhere in the poor areas have people come out in support of the government. In my own barrio, no one went out.”
While the presence of armed, violent groups in the barrios has kept many from protesting, the fact is that the poor have traditionally protested for issues related to their own circumstances, said Father Moreno. “The poor don't become actively involved in protests unless the issue affects the area where they live. The barrios defend themselves well, when it comes to evictions, or demands for services like electricity and water…That's why I say that now they are joining the protests for broader reasons that go beyond their local concerns.”
The impact of Venezuela’s high crime rate on the poor cannot be underestimated. Father Moreno said, “to join the general protests, you would think that they have the same reasons. Many residents in the barrios have children who are students, and if not, nephews, nieces, or godchildren. Venezuelan families, which tend to be very large, have extensive networks of relatives, and so almost everyone has a child on the street. “
At a recent protest in Catia, another poor neighborhood in Caracas, a sign read, “Catia isn’t in the east of Caracas. Nor are we bourgeois nor fascists. We’re Venezuela. President Maduro, we’ll celebrate Carnival when you’re gone.” A protester named Sandra Serrano explained to El Universal: “We’re tired of the lack of food, medicine, toilet paper, and parts for vehicles, sewing machines, appliances. Three days ago, in less than 30 minutes, three stick-ups took place on Ecuador Street in Catia.”
Because the world is in upheaval, it is imperative that the media scratch beneath the surface in areas of conflict. Simplifying the issue to class discontent ignores the institutional and structural reasons that landed Venezuela in a hole. Both Venezuela and the world deserve better.
The New York Times: Slum Dwellers in Caracas ask what protests